Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Clearing a Political Traffic JamCan Congestion Pricing Save MTA?

By Dylan NezajPublished September 12, 2019

Image courtesy of Mike Point/Getty Images North America
The debate over how best to bolster MTA funds is among the most contentious in New York politics. That congestion pricing will soon be a reality is a testament to a shifting paradigm, and an appreciation for the urgency with which we must repair the city’s economic engine.

Although New York’s vast public transit network is its lifeblood, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) lacks the capacity to upgrade the subway’s most fundamental infrastructure to 21st century standards. Recent efforts have improved safety and on-time performance, but MTA must still update the subway’s signals, maintain its tracks, improve handicap accessibility, and completely phase-in OMNY touchless fare payments if the century-old system is to service the basic needs of its more than 5 million daily riders. Thankfully, the State has taken a major step toward enabling the Authority to overhaul the subway system in addition to improving its vast bus and commuter rail networks.

This past March, following a rare consensus between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Legislature approved the inclusion of congestion pricing in Manhattan in the State’s 2020 budget. Congestion pricing, or congestion tolling, is a toll on private and commercial vehicles when entering a designated high-density zone. This alleviates traffic while also raising government revenue. While New York will be the first city in the United States to have such a system in place, other similarly sized cities, like London and Singapore, have imposed a version of such tolls for years and witnessed a relative reduction in congestion where intended.

Passing a congestion pricing plan in New York is, like the Second Avenue Subway, an undertaking nearly a hundred years in the making. Since the Great Depression, the City and State have debated reinstating tolls on New York’s East River crossings and even experimented with banning vehicular traffic in certain zones. The goal was not only to alleviate congestion, but to improve air quality as well. Yet such plans, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comprehensive congestion pricing scheme (whose toll revenue would have funded, at least in part, various MTA system upgrades) were all too unpopular to make it through the Legislature.

This past year, the State already began imposing a surcharge on for-hire vehicular fares going below 60th street, a measure that has proven contentious in its own right. But the sheer urgency of MTA’s present crisis, a significant mandate for congestion pricing, the salience of climate change mitigation generally, and the Democratic supermajority in the State government all mean that congestion pricing will likely be the first in a series of major initiatives to fund MTA’s upgrades. Pursuant to this plan, the Governor and Mayor envisioned an E-ZPass and plate-photography toll on all vehicles going below 60th street, putting at least $1 billion in an MTA lockbox every year. Despite this potential boost in funding to the Authority, New Yorkers are largely still wary of the efficacy of congestion pricing, and for good reason: many of the specifics of this plan, which will likely commence no sooner than 2021, have not yet been worked out. The toll’s exact rate, definitions of peak and off-peak hours, and possible exemptions and credit for vehicles previously tolled on bridges and tunnels are all forthcoming.  

Whatever form this plan takes, MTA must remain mindful that decreased congestion on New York’s roads means increased congestion on its trains. The subway system is already so over-capacity that despite the city’s population growth, congestion on its trains has led to a decline in ridership. Therefore, in addition to funding basic upgrades, MTA must use its new resources to expand the system’s present capacity. New signals will increase train frequency, but MTA can incorporate a car layout that reduces station dwell time into its future orders. MTA must fund any system expansions responsibly and with a goal of substantially alleviating congestion on existing lines – as the Second Avenue Line has done for the Lexington Avenue Line.

New Yorkers are sick of paying for an unreliable and outdated transit network, and they aren’t too thrilled about what they perceive to be yet another tax. MTA, under the governor’s auspices, must return on New York’s reluctant investment if it can expect more to come.

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